Charities warn food costs ‘overtaking’ electricity
The high cost of food has overtaken electricity bills as the biggest expense for the island's vulnerable, charities said yesterday.
Age Concern said power firm Belco's slight cut in its rates for next year would help the disadvantaged.
Claudette Fleming, the executive director of the charity, said “any type of savings anywhere in this climate is welcome”.
But she added: “I am sure people would like to see similar savings when it comes to food — food is overtaking electricity.”
She was backed by Sandy De Silva, the director of services at Family Centre.
Both charities praised the drop in electricity prices, announced earlier this month, which will come into effect tomorrow.
The average consumer will pay 2.31 per cent less on monthly electricity bills, where power consumption stands at 600 kWh — a cut of just over $5 a month.
But Dr Fleming said: “We've found food increasing more and more as an expense. Generally speaking, seniors are maintaining modest electricity bills.
“Where they tend to run into trouble is when they face a crisis situation, such as medical costs, where they may also be in difficulty maintaining their rent, and their electricity goes into arrears.”
She said that Age Concern used a social worker to assess seniors in hardship situations — particularly where electricity is necessary for medical reasons.
Dr Fleming added: “For the most part, people are able to pay their electricity bills. It's only when they end up in a major financial hardship situation that they fall off on their payments.”
Dr De Silva said Family Centre had “100 per cent” seen food costs overtake electric bills.
She added: “The three main bills are rent, Belco and food.
“But rent and food are the top two. When families come in to Family Centre for help, the first thing they ask for is food.”
“Food is a more variable cost. It's not going to be the exact amount each week, whereas rent is fixed.”
Dr De Silva said: “If you use the same amount of electricity each month, people can have pretty predictable costs. Food bills are more challenging. It could be $200 one week and $250 another.
“At Family Centre, our food vouchers are going more rapidly throughout the year.”
She said families in need might encounter higher electricity bills in the summer because of the cost of running air conditioning.
But Dr De Silva added that people were “more strategic with their costs” with electricity and Family Centre had not seen a rise in the number of families having their electricity disconnected for unpaid bills. She said: “With tips such as cold-water washing or turning lights off, people have been able to do well — not to say they are not struggling.”
Dr De Silva said: “We welcome the drop with Belco — but it would be great if it was a little bit more, so that it could help people with another bill.”
She added: “It's not as if this is a saving that's going to go into peoples' pockets. It's going to be spent elsewhere, on other expenses.”
Walter Roban, the acting leader of the Progressive Labour Party, said the rates cut was “fortunate” in a region where electricity rates were on the rise.
The island's high cost of living was an early priority after the PLP regained power in 2017 and the Price Commission was rebranded the Cost of Living Commission.
Mr Roban said: “We expect reductions of at least five per cent on energy over 2020 and we expect the vast majority of Bermudians to receive reductions.”
He said the reduction, implemented by the Regulatory Authority, which worked with Belco, would benefit 95 per cent of Bermudian families.
He added: “In the new year, we will continue to focus on reducing the cost of living for Bermudians.”
Belco launched a hardship fund for people who struggled to pay power bills in 2012.
A spokesman for the Ascendant Group, Belco's parent company, declined to give details on the how the fund was run.
But he said: “Belco established the hardship fund which is funded by employee contributions and which assists seniors and other vulnerable customers with their Belco bills.”
He added: “Periodically, employees across Ascendant raise money for the Belco Hardship Fund through companywide denim days.
“Members of the public can also contribute to the fund by contacting Belco.”